Social Media Demonization Is Another Moral Panic

Poster for The Social Dilemma – Fair Use

In his debate against Kamala Harris, Mike Pence zeroed in on the words “American people”. He wanted to shift responsibility away from a failing administration and onto the people themselves. Harris was at her strongest when she slammed this approach as making the American people sacrificial. There is no term more fascist than “essential worker”—death for the nation-state is a wartime responsibility done by the poor. Meanwhile the rich, who really don’t do anything productive, can continue to profit on largely illegal and universally unjust market manipulation inside their own fenced-in mansions. The people who actually work are exposed to the virus, dead, and essential. This romanization of death proves our present alienation under capitalism.

It’s nothing new to hear the rich put the responsibility on the poor. Poor people carry society forward and people get rich not from good ideas but from exploitation. Work gets a dollar, ordering others to do work makes a million. However, why should we fall into this romantic idea when it comes to work? The rich are lazy, but we all want to be. It’s fun.

I hesitate to talk about populism these days as guys like Thomas Frank wag their finger at liberalism, make God-awful jokes and repeat ad nauseam that populism is Trumpism or even worse that Trumpism and socialism have something in common and that is poverty or stupidity but Frank doesn’t know the difference.

The responsibility narrative repeats itself. Anytime a person does anything to enjoy themselves they are blamed for the cruel things done to them by the ruling class. Sex and drugs are two examples of enjoyable experiences that are demonized. Dunking on social media is the new fad for these puritans.

Of course, I am a drug and sex Puritan these days just to troll much of what postures as counter-culture. When the liberal-left cynically equates prostitution with genuine soulful sexual experience I don’t mind reminding them what a real pro-sex argument looks like. When legalizing marijuana is seen as a liberation akin to socialism I don’t mind shifting the conversation to the War on Drugs and material consequences of race, gender and class.

All quibbles aside sex and drugs take up this space and it’s important that we defend people’s right to enjoy their lives. But let’s take on the present battle. Social media. People go through their days. No one besides the ruling class has a right to survive under capitalism. Getting the most basic needs, let alone wants, filled, are denied.

Instead of talking about the rich’s misdeeds, we talk about the way social media is being distributed by the rich to make poor people complicit and self hating. But why make things go so far astray from class? Why couldn’t we criticize the amount of money going to the CEOs rather than blame the consumers who often enjoy the product?

Like sex and drugs, social media can destroy lives. But capitalism does that a better job at that and where’s the Netflix special on that? What’s truly scary about social media to the ruling class is that people lose control when they use it. Like other vices, people become unpredictable and less easy to manipulate into competitive market-oriented beings. Instead, people become consumed in something outside alienating survival for capital.

The rich also hate to see poor people happy. This is the most revolutionary threat because the rich have opted out of it. The rich are merely chasing the next thing that will lead to happiness. They don’t own it. They own things instead.

How many more horror stories do we have to hear about people hating themselves because of the like button? Like drug overdoses and exploitive sex, it happens. But the condemnation of the entire experience zooms right past the ruling class and demonizes enjoyment itself. These things always cut both ways. Liberated sex led to more healthy and egalitarian relations, not just teen pregnancies, drugs led to hippies protesting war, not just addiction, and social media mobilized a global protest movement after George Floyd’s death, not just an eating disorder.

People can’t be controlled. Whether our resistance is political and intentional or personal and spontaneous, we have desires outside the capitalist ideology. Social media is scary because there is something more going on than a simple transaction. It’s messy and it creates new spaces for our humanity to find itself. To assume that such a platform automatically generates disaster and despair is more of an assumption about human nature than about the actual platform and its unequal material construction.

Sex, drugs and social media are spaces for vulnerability. We give ourselves up. We hope to gain some experience, some connection, something our own in a world that isn’t. Often we fall short. But in these spaces, we aren’t afraid to fail. Unlike capitalism, failure doesn’t mean you’re on the street, begging for food. Failure means you lived. Failure means you tried. What the rich can’t understand is that someone would risk that. For the ride, for the soul, for something more than the algorithm. As the world ushers in a sadist police state to control the climate crisis and mounting class contradictions, aren’t we grateful for something, anything, that isn’t completely about the bottom line?

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at